Note: Thanks for the reviews, favorites and alerts. I'm glad you enjoyed my first chapter and I hope you'll enjoy this one as well.
Word count (Chapter 2): 5,230 words
Disclaimer: I don't own the Hunger Games
Chapter 2: Hiking
Peeta had always thought all meadows were plain; yellow or green, for those were the colors he had been able to see from his window. But now that they were walking over the path of dirty pebbles crunching beneath every step (only Katniss could somehow manage to slither along like a snake without making a single noise) he could see just how many colors indeed meadows held.
There were cornflowers resembling the sky on a flawless summer day, poppies red as apples and white as clouds and here or there a bright yellow sunflower, and all kinds of different flowers which he couldn't name, scattered over the fresh grass like dots over a vast green paper. He was so lost in taking all of these new images in that he was trailing behind, and had been so a few times already, till a very on the edge seeming Johanna would pull him to the group again.
This once, just when he was indeed preparing for her hard grip (harder than those of some men he knew) on his wrist again and an increased speed , she did not touch him. And when his head shot up in wonderment he found her smirking devilishly. In her hand she held a thick branch, some kind of texture and a bottle of leather.
"If you plan on walking much longer you'll need these," she said, handing these things to him. Baffled but without much thought he accepted, staring helplessly at the wood in his hands.
"For what would I need this?"
The brown bottle swayed, for Johanna had placed it insecurely on his fingers, and when he caught it he became aware of the foreign feeling; inside was no water, as he'd supposed, but something else.
"For a torch," the woman laughed, then got serious the next second. "It's getting dark. The sun is already beginning to set; it is only going take an hour or so now before you won't be able to see your hand in front of your eyes. And I would welcome it if you finally snapped out of your dreams and helped us to arrange our fireplace; of course, you can also feel free to wander further. In that case, however, you are going to need this torch for yourself."
"I've never made a torch!", exclaimed Peeta. He knew how to bake bread and put wood into an oven without burning himself, he could light a fire on wet ground and carve perfectly shaped roses into cakes with knives, but something as simple as winding a scrap of cloth around a branch and wetting it with some oil exceeded his abilities.
Johanna rolled her eyes, snatched those from his hands and slowly showed him what he'd have to do the next time, when she wouldn't be there "to elucidate the simplest things in life!". After, she put her arm around his shoulder (the torch in her hand not yet aflame) and said, "I do hope that indeed you have made the right choice!"
Finnick and Katniss had already left the stones and were spreading blankets across the grass; in the middle they'd left a circle, which Peeta suspected to become the fireplace. Haymitch's arms were full of rocks, and his coat hung beneath them. There was a muffled noise when they hit the meadow, and Katniss frowned when they splayed over the blanket she was just unfurling.
Shortly before they reached the group, Peeta asked Johanna, who was bending down to gather some pebbles that hadn't yet been stamped on, "Do you think I have?"
She let her stones trickle into his awaiting arms like water, and her eyes flicked to the sky, to their company and to the horizon ere resting at him at last. "How would I know? I made a similar choice a long time ago, but that was mine."
"Do not ask," she added, when his lips parted to form the question, a question he then saw she did not want to answer. Perhaps even a flicker of grief was there, visible, in her brown eyes. They were like old trees, he decided. Hard and unyielding. Even if somehow, she always seemed to sense danger. Thus old. Experienced."You shouldn't always tag along after us!", shouted Finnick. Cheerfully he sauntered over to where there now stood, inside of the circle, carefully (much unlike Haymitch) placing the small rocks a few inches away from the edges of the blankets.
"Doesn't give me the opportunity to get to know our new companion better! After all, we're going to have to wander with him for a while. You ought to tell us something about yourself."
Johanna nodded and Haymitch grinned mischievously, like a boy, but Katniss seemed to take no notice of their talk. A little too forceful maybe did she pull one blanket straighter, afore she settled stiffly onto it.
"But later," said Johanna. "When the fire is blazing and the sky is black, for then we're going to have all the time in the world. But it's hard to light a flame in the dark, so let us start now and talk after."
None of them seemed to care about the girl's discomposure, and when she pulled out some wood (her own bag, which had been carelessly slung across her right shoulder as if not to touch her braid, which hung at the other side, seemed considerably thinner after, and was still filled to the brim, like a jar holding too much beer) and placed it in the middle of the circle (now made of rocks), where also Johanna's torch was laying, she didn't look at anyone, but instead her eyes where fixed upon her work.
"I can do this," Peeta heard himself saying when she kneeled and took out a smaller branch, which he knew was supposed to start the fire. Skeptically she glanced at him, then dropped what she'd held and raised her eyebrows.
"Fine," she hissed, rose and went to her blanket, where, facing away from the company, she rummaged around in her bag. If she found what she was searching for, or if she was searching for anything at all, they never came to know.
Finnick sighed good-naturally and joined her there, and soon after whispers could be heard, but not what they were saying. Johanna, in the meanwhile, appeared to be unnerved, and her answers seemed to get edgier while she was talking to Peeta, who shortly after achieved a spark to leap at the wood and oil.
"So there's something you can do." Her voice was content; almost approving. "Good."
He smiled, not certain if she'd meant it as a joke or not. Yet he did not get long to think about it, for once he'd chosen a blanket for himself further away from the arising fire, Haymitch seated his heavy body beside him, and began sipping at his bottle. Whether inside was water or some sort of liquor Peeta could not see (for the drops on his beard were clear as air), but the smell, to him, seemed too keen for the pure fluid that runs through rivers.
"That was more or less one of my tasks at home in the bakery. I've been making fires since I was tall enough to glimpse over the lower edge of our stove door."
"Wrong," growled Haymitch, and when both the boy and the woman shot him confused looks, he added, "You have no home anymore."
Peeta wanted to contradict; he had a home, or so he'd told himself. The wild was now what his village had been; meadows like these and woods and mountains were his home now. But even in his head he heard how unconfident and foolish it sounded, and so he kept his mouth shut.
"Well, what does it matter?", asked Johanna. "None of us do!"
"None of us?"
How he'd missed Finnick's approaching was a mystery to Peeta. The man's steps, after all, were heavy (though lighter than his own) and his silhouette against the fire, though not plump like Haymitch's, broad and tall. It was a gorgeous glow flames would cast upon people; stronger than sunsets or moonlight, and some eyes would reflect this gleam, though some, as Finnick's green ones, would remain untouched. They were like water. And though he'd studied many eyes, he did not know what his own did.
Johanna's, however, were too fast to catch the fire. Perhaps they weren't like trees after all. They followed the piece of bread the man threw at her before elegantly catching it and devouring it greedily.
"So maybe you do. Maybe Katniss does. But we don't know!"
She glared gloomily. "Do we?"
"No." He dropped onto a plaid blanket, which seemed rough and uncomfortable despite the soft grass beneath, and reached Peeta a small loaf as well. At once did he realize how hungry he had been (and simply ignoring his stomach's gnawing), for they'd not eaten since early midday, when the sun had still been shining brightly from above. His murmured thankyou was muffled by his own chewing, and he was not certain Finnick even heard it.
But the man did not seem to care anyway, for still his thoughts were on Johanna's words.
"We don't. But still I wish to keep the slender hope I have, and I would welcome it if you didn't always try to convince me that there is none."
"You should know that I am just trying to spare you the disappointment! Hope's a false friend. It is folly to trust in it." Johanna settled back against her rucksack. "Besides, I do wish that you will find your Annie. You should know that as well."
Finnick's features softened, and he reached to touch the woman's shoulder lightly. Though she did not deign to look at him she did not shake it off either. "I know that, Johanna. I do."
"Who is Annie?", asked Peeta, not able to withhold it any longer (and the bread, which had tasted delicious and more well-earned than any he had eaten afore, was now gone).
Of course, he was also wondering where Katniss's home was, yet she was not fond of him as it was; he would only worsen it by posing that question. Though how exactly he was to approach her he had not figured out yet. Still he wanted to; after all, she was his companion, and a girl with so much fire in her eyes could not keep quiet because she had nothing to tell.
Without quite realizing it he turned his head to peer at her; the sky had grown darker, though it was not yet fully black, for the sun shone red as fire at the horizon. It bathed her in light where she was huddled on her blanket, still facing the woods far away. A beautiful sight, somehow. At once he found himself wondering what it would be like to paint her there; what kind of picture would it be? One of hope or sadness? He could not tell, but perhaps he would, despite the warning in his head, have risen and gone over to her, had Finnick not brought him back.
"Annie is a girl from my past. She lived in my village, but she was always sick, and so her parents brought her away, to the sea. She's supposed to heal there. I've been searching for her since then, for I could not bear the seperation, even if it was for her good."
His eyes gave away the sadness he was trying to hide from his face and his factual telling voice. Peeta didn't have to question what she was to the man. Annie had been - and still was - Finnick's love. Something he'd never had. And at once he felt he shouldn't have asked. Too soon. Too personal. Finnick shouldn't have answered.
"I'm sorry," he said, and meant both. But the man lowered his head and shook it. Behind him the sun finally vanished beneath the horizon. Stars began to spread over the sky, and to Peeta's left rose a silver moon to complete the night.
The fire was crackling; the wood beginning to wear off. They shifted closer, for the air had grown cold, and was carrying a crisp breeze. A sound could be heard as Katniss wrapped her blanket tightly around her body, and with it crawled in the direction of the fire, though her eyes were on the stars, which shone like millions of fireflies someone had sent to whirr across the night sky. From his window they had never seemed so clear, and thus he felt his own gaze drawn to the sky as well now.
"You wanted to tell us something about yourself."
Once again it was Finnick who ripped him out of his thoughts and his eyes back to the earth. The man's voice was kind, but his face seemed still reflective; he had not yet let go of the memory of his love.
"There is not a lot to say about me," began Peeta, turning to the three members of his group that were paying attention (even Haymitch, though his eyes seemed strangely shut; the gray orbs were barely visible).
"I have been a Baker's son my whole life. Risen to work in the morning. Gone to bed in the evening. Eaten some food in between. Later I would go to the inn, where I befriended dear Delly and many travelers that passed through. They would tell me stories, and my wish to join them would grow and grow, but I couldn't simply leave, for there was one man who gave me a reason to stay. Until even he wasn't reason enough anymore, and I could only give him something to remember me by; a picture of the mountains. He knew of my dream, and thus he will know where I am going."
He took a deep breath. The words were painful, like a pinch (though not too deep) to his heart.
"And not worry about me."
"Who is he?", asked Johanna after a minute of silence, in which Peeta had been staring at the sky again ,and wondering if his father knew indeed. If he had found the picture, and what his reaction might have been. He hoped the old man had not cried. Not because of him.
"My father," answered Peeta. "He is an incredibly kind man, and was for a long time the only person I could talk to; only he, not my mother or my three brothers. I don't think they ever really cared for me."
"Well, you have us now." Finnick threw an arm around the boy's shoulder. "We may not know you very well yet, but here we take care of each other, and you have been plain with us so far. We owe you sincerity on our part."
"I do not expect you to be frank with me. You have done me the favor of taking me with you; that has already been more than I could ask for."
At that the old man (for the first time since Peeta had met him) flashed a genuine smile. His teeth were yellow and ill, and when after he opened his mouth to speak his breath smelled of liquor, but somehow it lightened Peeta's heart, as though there'd been a heavy weight upon it he hadn't known of till it was gone.
"It was everything you could ask for. Not more and not less."
Then he yawned, stretched once, and declared he'd go to rest now. The flame was almost dead, only a small glow in the dark world, and none of the faces around could be seen as more than shadows. Thus, shortly after, Johanna's foot smothered what was left of the fire, and caused all light to fade at once. Peeta saw nothing, for he did not grant his eyes time to get used to the darkness but closed them at once, ere following Katniss suit by drawing the blanket around his body to warm him and laying his body onto the grass that was his pillow and bed.
Shortly before sleep hit him, however, when around were only soft snores (he didn't know whose) breaking the silence, he thought he heard a soft whisper.
"How can a family not care?", a voice that was too clear to be a man's, yet to deep to be Johanna's, breathed into the night. But it swallowed the question like every light, and when he woke in the morning, Peeta was not certain if it had not been imagination.
There was no water nearby, for the next stream, as Haymitch explained while they were fetching their rucksacks and bags, was miles away, though they would cross it sooner or later. Of course that meant they could not clean their bodies, and thus Peeta smelled of sweat and fume (the fire of the evening had, after all, left its marks) when they set off again (without breakfast to fill the gnawing stomachs of the company), but at least not of liquor like Haymitch did.
The old leader, however, was it who first spoke again after a good while of walking, when the sun had started its daily journey from the east to the south and almost reached its destination.
"There's a village, a two days' march away from here. We can head for it; it's only a short detour, but could serve as a last stop before we reach the forest, and Katniss can witness to the dangers and hardships those woods may cause."
Peeta glanced at the girl, who was walking alone unlike himself, Johanna and Finnick, and playing with the tip of her braid ere peering up at the mention of her name and nodding in agreement. "That is true indeed. Though we must hurry, we would do no wrong if we slept a night in that village. It would be safer and more comfortable than many nights after."
It was the most he had heard her say at once (the day before she'd sometimes spoken to Finnick shortly, and once to Johanna and Haymitch, but not to him), and he was surprised. Her voice didn't sound cutting or threatening, as it had the two times she'd talked to him, but more or less detached and passive, as if the group's choice did not concern her much (though it did).
"I am astounded, brainless," said Johanna, who was walking through the meadow instead of making use of the path, which was now only light brown and earthy; the stones had stopped a mile or so from where they'd been resting.
"The last few weeks you've spent trying to convince us to run all the way to Twelve, and now you so willingly agree to an indirect route?"
Katniss glared angrily at the woman. "Well, you all had to drag along this burden!" Almost carelessly, as if he was only an unnerving fly, she waved her hand at Peeta. "He won't make it through the forest and the mountains without food. Which he will only get if he can pay for it himself! After all, he's not my pet. I don't want to have to feed him."
Her nose scrunched up as she snorted. "And besides, in the long run we will merely lose an hour, maybe even gain some time without me having to hunt for him as well."
The boy, at the very least, felt that her words had wounded his pride. And other parts he did not want to think of. Although he did not know her, it was not her right to talk about him as though he was a useless rock on a chain around somebody's neck.
"I can pay for food. But you cannot judge me! How can you claim to know what you do not?"
Fast as the wind she whirled around and stood then motionless, hair swirling with the remnant of her own panache. Her face bore a mocking scowl, and distorted her normally rather pretty (though quite sharp) features. "So if I told you to catch a rabbit with a bow and an arrow, would you bring me one? If I told you to find carrots in the wild, would you know where to search for them?"
Upon seeing his answer written all across his face, she scornfully huffed. But what she had not bargained for was his unrelenting response; for he could not leave it at that if he ever wished to gain her respect.
"Well, I can make of both a stew that will remain edible for a few weeks and be more nutritious than the rabbit or the carrot alone. Can you?"
He raised his eyebrows triumphantly, and without another word she turned and strode to join Haymitch, who was walking a few feet ahead. Finnick, Peeta then saw, was trying to suppress a laughter, and Johanna was quite openly grinning. "Well done," she breathed when she fell in step, and after into a quite comfortable silence with him.
A soft breeze was caressing the grass of the meadow, like long hair being blown by the wind. The blades were rippling, reminding the boy of soft waves whizzing over the small lakes of his village. In the distance he thought he heard the swooshing of a river and the son of a bird he could not see. There was the sound of steps on the ground, but now that they'd left the pebbles behind they were more quiet, and Katniss, who afore had been barely audible, was now as silent as a raindrop in the air. Had he not been able to see her he would not have believed that she was with them.
He stared at her back, her dancing braid and the heavy bag on her shoulder, and wondered what it was about him that infuriated her so much. Why she had been sour on him from the moment they'd met. Whether it was indeed because she thought him a burden. And lastly to his mind came what he'd heard her say ere he fell asleep, and if indeed it had been her voice, a whisper in the dark.
"What is Twelve?"
He hadn't realized he'd spoken aloud (for indeed it had only been a thought) ere he beheld Johanna's baffled face next to his .
"You said Katniss had spent the last few weeks trying to convince you to run to twelve. Now I find myself wondering what is Twelve? I know it as a number, but you must have meant something else."
"Oh," snorted the woman. "Well, you truly cannot have heard a lot of beyond the mountains - that is not your fault, for you were not supposed to." Despite her attenuated words, an air of condescension wafted Johanna. "Twelve is a country there; it is called Twelve simply because it is the merest country of all those around and in the mountains."
"And there Katniss comes from?"
"Yes." Johanna's face became sincere at once, and her voice grave. For the very first time he saw a grown woman in her frenzied eyes. "But it is not my place to tell you more."
Peeta nodded, for he knew she was right. Not only would Katniss be (justifiably) mad at Johanna, but also it certainly wouldn't make her like him anymore.
"Is it in you place to tell me why she loathes me?"
A smirk unfurled on her features. "She does not hate you. She's merely trying not to grow fond of you."
"You mean it's nothing I have done?", asked the astounded boy.
"It is," came a male voice from behind them. Finnick's green eyes, as dismissive as they'd been in the glow of the fire, were almost sparkling in the kind light of the sun. A smile graced his handsome features. He was the only one who, despite the lack of water, still looked as though he'd just taken a long shower and scrubbed his body clean of every ounce of dirt and drop of sweat.
"But it's foolish envy, and you should not concern yourself with her until she has calmed enough to think rational again."
So he did try. They kept wandering and Peeta kept watching nature. He recognized some more flowers (golden yellow dandelions, carnations pink as the dresses of young girls and red as their lips, and violets that did their name all justice, for they were of a exceptional purple), and could almost not tear his eyes off one shut evening primrose, so brightly yellow, which he assumed shone like stars on earth in the night in full blossom.
But even the light, faint yellow meadow, which was new, for all afore had been green with spots of other colors, with its pastel colored flowers did not possess the ability to avert his thoughts about her. Instead, the silence merely worsened it, and he found himself wondering what these colors would look like on her; a muted red dress instead of muddy brown pants that were far too wide for her, perhaps an apron white as the few clouds on the sky, or blue like blue sailors tied around her waist.
Once she turned, and it was then that he truly noted how pretty her features were when calm, though she distorted them with a frown almost immediately. He caught himself wondering what she probably looked like when she slept and flushed a deep red, like a ripe cherry. How exactly she had caught his interest he would never know, but after they'd eaten their meal (some bread and even each a stripe of corned beaf - where they'd got it he did not want to know - for Haymitch told them that it would be their last repast of the day) by a small green hill on which they could comfortably sit and listen to the wind and the few birds in the sky, he glanced at her long messy braid and fierce eyes and confessed to himself that she had.
And when she caught his glimpse she did not scowl, but merely pressed her lips to form a thin line and quickly turned her head to toy with the grass beside her.
He thought that that must be an accomplishment afore a voice in his head (that sounded vaguely like Finnick) reminded him that he wasn't supposed to think anything at all. Johanna, who was squatting nearby, the knees of her trousers dirty for pressed into the soil, threw him a suspicious flash ere continuing to chew at her beef.
His stomach began to protest as the sun was beginning to set. At once a growl was to be heard, and Finnick, who was just handing him his blanket (the same as the day before, dark brown and somewhat worn) shot him a sympathetic look.
"You'll get used to it," he claimed, "But we need to save all the food we can for our journey through the forest and the mountains."
That night there was neither fire nor talk, for they would get both the next night at the inn, as Johanna explained. Thus he fell asleep quickly (the sun had not yet fully set), and when he awoke (to a mere glow presaging dawn) his feet had joined his stomach in matter of aching. The only difference was that, after he'd felt cramps of the worst sort, as though he was just about to starve inside, the sensation was gone at once, and so was the hunger for a while.
But his feet, which objected vehemently to being set onto the path again and again, did not cease to hurt, for they were not used to a stroll as long. His soles seemed to be burning, and the fire licked higher with every stride.
On the positive side, he realized after a while, was to remark that all thoughts of dark hair and gray eyes were driven from his mind. Yet it took only a few minutes of more walking (he was certain his feet were by now as red as the poppies at the wayside) for him to wish it was the other way around; rather would he care and disregard Finnick's advice than bear this constant pain.
They did not stop once, though the boy was quite desperately (or so he thought) craving it, for when Finnick proposed a break (and Peeta had a feeling that the man wasn't asking for himself but for the boy, which he was thankful for nonetheless) Haymitch exclaimed roughly that he wouldn't be the one to listen to Katniss's curses after because the didn't make it to the village in time, and with this (and a glare on the girl's part) the issue was over and done with.
For everyone but Peeta, who, to stifle a moan, took a deep swig from his bottle and kept his gaze keen on the nearing woods. Still, he noticed, they were on the horizon, but closer now, taller, and some separated trees were already ahead, a few miles away or so, they stood like slender branches thrust into the earth.
Joyful, when the sun was at the zenith, Peeta saw sparkling on the ground instead of only trees (and grass nearby) far afield, and when they came closer it was revealed as clean blue water, one or two miles away. He was just about to run all the way to it (to let his tired feet dangle inside; he was even willing to accept the exertions running would bring, after all), when Haymitch gripped his shoulder with a strength that once again surprised the boy.
"No, lad. We will cross the river, but not today. Today we're going to arrive at this village."
And he pointed his finger at the west, where Peeta hadn't glanced afore, too enchanted by the sparkling in the east. Lead to by a white stony way departing from the part they'd made use of was a gathering of houses that looked nothing like those of his village; more circular roofs, angular shaped windows and walls all painted a different shade of brown could be seen from where he stood, merely an hour's march away. Cheer rose in him, and a grin spread across his face.
"Well then," he said with newfound strength and joy in his voice, thinking of food in his stomach and rest for his feet, "Let us hurry!"
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